A Life Created by Art

Russian-born sculptor Alexei Kazantsev is working on a monumental marble recreation of the Holy Family in his Maxwelton backyard. Once finished, the  commissioned piece will be displayed at Holy Ghost Church in Hammond, La.  - Cynthia Woolbright
Russian-born sculptor Alexei Kazantsev is working on a monumental marble recreation of the Holy Family in his Maxwelton backyard. Once finished, the commissioned piece will be displayed at Holy Ghost Church in Hammond, La.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

In the winter chill Wednesday morning, a thick cloud of white marble dust surrounds Alexei Kazantsev. The 37-year-old Russian-born sculptor has a power saw in hand, is wearing tattered blue coveralls and a breathing mask that would make Darth Vader envious. Every bit of his disheveled hair is misted by white powder. He is the picture of a modern-day Michelangelo.

This isn’t a far-fetched assessment of the Maxwelton artist who traveled last year to buy marble from the same quarry that sold stone to the Renaissance artist 500 years ago. Kazantsev uses the same-age old painstaking creative process used by sculptors for hundreds of years. He sketches the conception of the piece, from that creating a life-size clay model, a life-size plaster model and then transfering its form to stone using the Michelangelo developed three-point frame. Hours of carving using various saws, chisels and polishing tools bring the form to life.

Just in time for Christmas, he’s nearing the completion of figures of icons who have for decades symbolized to many the beginning — the Holy Family.

The artist is creating the commissioned work “Holy Family” for Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Hammond, La.

It is a tender monument. Even in her current plaster form, Mary’s warm eyes glow and though white a blush could almost be seen on her cheek. Baby Jesus has arms outstretched and its imaginable at any moment he could climb down Mary’s flowing skirt and toddle around. Joseph stands tall and proud. The donkey will fawn by their side.

Mary holding baby Jesus will be 7-feet tall, Joseph towers at 9-feet and a marble donkey at 4 feet tall. When they arrived, the marble slabs weighed 16,000 pounds for Joseph, 10,000 for the donkey and 18,000 for Mary.

As the transportation difficulty? Have money will travel.

“It’s no problem if you pay,” he said.

Shipping costs for the marble’s arrival alone was around $6,000.

He visited 450 quarries in Carrara, Italy, before convincing the owner of Cava Michelangelo to sell to him some of the quarry’s famous stone. The owner was impressed by Kazantsev’s portfolio of work and artist and quarry owner have remained in close relationship since.

“In Italy it is believed God forgives your sins if you help artists,” he said of the relationship.

Kazantsev headed to the quarry five different times for buying trips. But stone isn’t like making a purchase off a department store rack, as the perfection of the marble artists look for can take extended periods of time to find. It took two and a half months to find the block for Mary.

The Holy Family is but one of the artist’s many commissioned pieces in his extensive yet still young artistic career. His biggest benefactor is Edwin Neill II, President and CEO of Neill Corporation — the largest distributor of AVEDA spa products in the world.

He has lived and shown his work all over the U.S. and abroad. He has traveled all over Europe to gather the tools of his trade and inspiration to create it.

He is an artistic contradiction who enjoys, if not encourages his clients to be a part of the creative process. When the congregation at Holy Ghost wasn’t sure of his decision for the placement of Mary’s hands he went back to the drawing board, even after spending hundreds of hours drawing and creating a life-size clay model.

“I made the mistake of pushing my vision,” he said. “I like the community of artistic creation. The relationship should be like baby making with the energy of the client and the artist working together to create new life.”

Kazantsev doesn’t come from artists blood and isn’t sure if he will pass his artistic tendencies to his sons with wife Kat Fritz, 2-year-old Jasper and 8-month-old Jaden.

“I joke they have two choices, become musicians like their mother or doctors so they can support me in my old age,” he said.

Kazantsev was raised two miles outside of Moscow in the 50,000-plus population factory town of Alexandrov by blue collar parents Yevgeny and Valentina.

Unknowing at the time, a health problem in his youth contributed to his artistic talents. For three years beginning when he was 7, Alexei was bed-ridden with painful calcium accumulation on his hip bones. He learned to pass the endless hours by sketching.

“It definitely helped me develop faster and at a younger age,” Kazantsev said.

Then came the crossroads every young Russian must meet. Education in the country is mandatory for eight years, after that the student must decide if they want to go onto high school and the university, attend a trade school, or drop out.

“I really wanted to be a car mechanic, but my mom pushed me towards art,” Kazantsev said.

He began a just under four-year apprenticeship at his uncle Sergei Kazantsev’s Moscow studio at the age of 14. It was the beginning of training to help prepare him for extensive testing required to enter the Moscow State Art Academy.

During the apprenticeship he went from blue collar upbringings to being enveloped in his uncle’s atmosphere of Bolshoi Ballet and his uncle’s friends — Moscow’s elite arts and social crowd. It was a needed diversion and focus for the young Russian boy.

‘By 14 many of my friends had already gone to jail and I already had been working on a number of pieces,” he said.

He describes his teachings at the Moscow State Art Academy — where he earned bachelors and masters degrees and went onto the Ph.D. program — as classical and traditional, based on ancient Italian and Greek art style.

After graduation he headed to the United States with an invitation from a friend and little else. When Kazantsev stepped off the plane onto Iowa soil in 1992 he was 26-years old, had $40 in his pocket and spoke two words of English. By 1994 he ended up in Lincoln, Neb., working for a gallery owner who paid him $900 a month.

“He ended up keeping everything,” he said.

Kazantsev met Kat Fritz in 1994 while she was a music major at Lincoln State University and he worked at the gallery, nearby her college campus. They were married May 18, 1995, in Louisiana. During their marriage they traveled the country, practicing their individual artistic crafts — her with music, he with sculpture, painting and other experimental forms.

Kazantsev and Fritz abandoned the balmy heat of their last port of call, Louisiana, for a Maxwelton residence in April of 2001.

“It was too hot to work outside in Louisiana,” he said.

He is a Renaissance man who loves literature, nature, history, politics, music and movies — the latter of which Michelangelo was deprived. He’s been known to be just as goofy as his sons and will entertain them for hours when not at work in his studio.

He speaks of the spirituality of form, the presence of volume his pieces occupy and the energy of their surface. He’s woven the history of his land into his pieces by using at times sandstone from the Black Sea and 1,000 year old limestone from the foundations of the great city of Moscow itself.

He isn’t worried about time — even he is already six months over schedule on the Holy Family.

“Art is never finished and never perfect,” he said. “You can work on a piece for two years or one day and feel this way.”

Michelangelo, famous for taking seven years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel must have had the same time philosophy.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 22
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates